Déesse V Nine Goodbye Kisses by Delphine Lebourgeois
Feminists never bought the idea of the computational mind set free from its body. Cognitive science is finally catching up
We are shackled to the pangs and shocks of life, wrote Virginia Woolf in The Waves(1931), ‘as bodies to wild horses’. Or are we? Serge Faguet, a Russian-born tech entrepreneur and self-declared ‘extreme biohacker’, believes otherwise. He wants to tame the bucking steed of his own biochemistry via an elixir of drugs, implants, medical monitoring and behavioural ‘hacks’ that optimise his own biochemistry. In his personal quest to become one of the ‘immortal posthuman gods that cast off the limits of our biology, and spread across the Universe’, Faguet claims to have spent upwards of $250,000 so far – including hiring ‘fashion models to have sex with in order to save time on dating and focus on other priorities’.
It’s easy to roll our eyes at such outré displays of entitlement, seemingly endemic in the Silicon Valley set. Beyond Faguet, ‘transhumanist’ true believers awaiting their version of the rapture include the entrepreneur Elon Musk, the Googler Ray Kurzweil and the philosopher Nick Bostrom. Their transhumanist ideal resembles a late-capitalist rendering of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man: an individual super-human, armed with a wealth of cognitive and physical enhancements, elevated to a state of unassailable strength and power, devoid of all dependency, and, often enough, endowed with the ability to reproducewithout the inconvenience of women. As they describe it, ‘immortality’ sounds like nothing so much as manspreading into the future.
What’s most instructive about transhumanism, though, isn’t what it exposes about the hubris of rich white men. It’s the fact that it represents a paradigm case of what happens when a particular cast of mind, made from the sediment of centuries of philosophy, gets taken to its logical extreme. Since Plato, generations of philosophers have been gripped by a fear of the body and the desire to transcend it – a wish that works hand-in-hand with a fear of women, and a desire to control them. In the dialogue Timaeus, Plato likens the force of his ideal, immaterial forms to a disciplinarian father, imposing order on all this unwieldy material stuff that was nonetheless ‘the mother and receptacle of all created and visible and in any way sensible things’. Here Plato deploys a well-worn technique for suppressing corporeal angst: carving off the mind (rational, detached, inviolable, symbolically male) from the body (emotional, entangled, weak, symbolically female).
Plato’s legacy persisted into the Medieval world, as the split between form and matter assumed the moral complexion of Christianity. Humans were believed to be in possession of an immortal soul, which reason and restraint should shield from the corrupting influence of earthly pleasures. Women and the female body, the presumed targets of men’s sexual desire, therefore bore the semiotic burden of sin. The theologian St Augustine, for example, chastised himself for repeatedly succumbing to lustful urges in his youth, where women ‘found my soul beyond its portals, dwelling in the eye of my flesh’.
With the advent of modernity and the Enlightenment, this wish to detach from the material became a self-consciously scientific and rational enterprise. Spiritual transcendence wasn’t the point: the aim instead was to attain a vantage that offered an unimpeded vista on the natural world. Francis Bacon, a polymathic pioneer of the scientific method, was particularly fond of deploying sexual imagery to capture the relationship between reality and its observer. ‘Let us establish a chaste and lawful marriage between Mind and Nature,’ he wrote in The Refutation of Philosophies (1608) – with nature, of course, assuming the role of the docile wife. For Bacon, the ‘good scientist is a gallant suitor’, as the Australian philosopher Genevieve Lloyd notes in The Man of Reason (1984), while nature ‘is mysterious, aloof – but, for all that, eminently knowable and controllable’.
No wonder feminist thinkers have been so skeptical about attempts to raise ‘rationality’ above all else. The concept of reason itself is built on a profoundly gendered blueprint. But a surprising rapprochement might be in sight: between feminists who criticise the mind/matter split, and certain philosophers and scientists who are now trying to put them back together. Fresh theories and findings about human cognition suggest that those feminised zones of physicality, emotion and desire not only affect the way we think, but are the very constituents of thought itself. So while some might yet hanker for an escape from our failing flesh, the best we can hope for is what the American biologist and feminist theorist Donna Haraway calls ‘staying with the trouble’: not flight and transcendence, but remaining with our messy bodies, and transgressing them…